Animals and the Capacity for Love

Tony Milligan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


A recurring assumption in analytic work on the philosophy of love is that love is best understood through an exploration of our human responsiveness to other humans. However, this plausible methodological preference has spilled over into two quite different and more restrictive claims about love, or rather about love in the deep and philosophically-interesting sense. The claims in question are: (1) that non-human animals may be loved but they cannot love in return (a view advanced by Harry Frankfurt); and (2) that love is a person-focused emotion, and so animals can neither love nor be loved without delusion (a view advanced by Bennett Helm among others). I want to present a counter-picture to both claims and to draw attention to the harmful consequences that claim (2) has for our valuing of animals. However, my approach will focus upon the shared presupposition of both (1) and (2) that animals cannot love. I will give reasons for regarding this as the driver behind both claims and will not attempt to challenge it through any revision of our understanding of animal cognition as, in some important respects, limited. I will argue that the rejection of the capacity of animals to love has come to rest not simply upon a plausible estimation of their limited cognitive capacities but upon an unnecessarily demanding account of intimacy, one which involves second-order desires which are unavailable to other, non-human, animals. While there is a good reason for accepting that love does requires intimate care (because it helps to distinguish love from altruistic concern for strangers) a plausible and rival account of intimacy can nonetheless be set up by appeal to clusters of conditional desires which remain resolutely first-order. Because such desires are an integral feature of grief, an endorsement of this rival account of intimacy will license us to say that those animals which can grieve will also have the capacity for love. (And, conveniently, animal grief is something for which we have a good deal of empirical evidence.) What will then remain in dispute is the kind of account of intimacy that we ought to adopt. I will try to resolve this in favour of the less-demanding approach by appeal to a narrative concerning what we need an account of intimacy for.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLove and its Objects
Subtitle of host publicationWhat can we care for?
EditorsChristian Maurer, Tony Milligan, Kamila Pacovska
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Print)978-1-137-38330-3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2014


  • Philosophy of Love


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